BEIJING – Rights groups on Wednesday praised Hollywood director Steven Spielberg's decision to shun involvement with the Beijing Olympics opening and closing ceremonies because China was not doing enough to help end the crisis in Darfur.
Spielberg's move marked a high-profile setback for Beijing and its efforts to keep at bay a monthslong campaign by activists to spotlight the authoritarian communist regime's human rights record.
Although not entirely unexpected, it appeared to catch Beijing organizers flat-footed.
Spielberg, who won an Oscar for his 1993 Holocaust film "Schindler's List," said he had not signed his contract to serve as an artistic adviser to the Games' opening and closing ceremonies in hopes that dialogue with China would produce results.
China is believed to have special influence with Sudan because it buys two-thirds of the country's oil exports, while selling the regime weapons and defending Khartoum in the U.N. Security Council.
"While China's representatives have conveyed to me that they are working to end the terrible tragedy in Darfur, the grim realities of the suffering continue unabated," Spielberg said in a statement Tuesday.
Praising his decision, Human Rights Watch said Beijing must also be pressured to improve "deplorable" human rights conditions at home as well as to act on Darfur, where fighting between government-backed militia and rebels has left more than 200,000 people dead and an estimated 2.5 million displaced since 2003.
"Corporate sponsors, governments and National Olympic Committees should urge Beijing to improve human rights conditions in China," the New York-based group said.
Spielberg, whose 2005 film "Munich" dealt with the killings of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics, had indicated as early as August that he might not take part in the ceremonies, but Beijing seemed unprepared to respond when his formal announcement came.
Two spokesmen for the Beijing organizing committee said they were preparing a response. A U.S.-based consultant from public relations firm Hill & Knowlton, hired by the organizing committee, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said it was seeking more information before commenting.
Spielberg's announcement Tuesday could be a major blow to Beijing's promotion of the Aug. 8-24 Olympics as a symbol of China's integration into mainstream global society.
In bidding for the Games in 2001, China promised IOC members that the Olympics would lead to an improved climate for human rights, but most independent monitoring groups say Beijing has failed to live up to that pledge.
Beijing has invested billions of dollars and its national prestige into what it hopes will be a glorious showcase of China's rapid development from impoverished agrarian nation to rising industrial power.
Already, however, the country has been heavily beset by criticism from rights groups, celebrities and international media that threatens to dampen the mood surrounding the Games.
Highlighting concerns over free speech in Beijing, the British Olympic Association on Monday was compelled to acknowledge that an agreement it asked its athletes to sign appeared to go beyond International Olympic Committee rules barring any "demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda" at an Olympic venue or area.
Rights groups had castigated the BOA for attempting to gag its athletes and a number of other national Olympic committees responded by ruling out similar restrictions.
China's entirely state-controlled media carried no mention of Spielberg's announcement and state censors earlier blacked out overseas satellite television reports about the complaints against the BOA.
However, the Global Times, a highly nationalistic tabloid published by the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily, ran a front page report on the British Olympic Association issue Wednesday, casting China as the victim of prejudiced overseas media and pressure groups.
"It is hard to see Western bias dying down in the short term," the paper said.
Officially, the government's response to such criticism has been to angrily lash out at what it calls attempts to "politicize" the Games.
"To link the Darfur issue to the Olympics is a move to politicize the Olympics and this is inconsistent with the Olympic spirit and will bear no fruit," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said on Jan. 24 -- the ministry's most recent comment on the issue.
A spokeswoman for Adidas, which is estimated to be spending $200 million for sponsorship rights to the Beijing Games, said the sporting goods maker was committed to its relationship with the Games.
The German company's official statement on Darfur and the Olympics states, "We do not believe we have the political leverage that the campaigners attribute to us."